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January 20, 2011

Tunisia offers warning to Arab leaders

Tom Pfeiffer

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(Cairo) Nervous Arab leaders watching young Tunisian demonstrators force an ageing strongman into sweeping concessions are wondering if their own old established formula of political repression will have to change too.

According to Reuters, there seems little likelihood that Tunisia's violence will soon spread and unseat autocratic governments from Rabat to Riyadh, partly as opposition movements are weak and demoralised. No one thinks Tunis is the Arab world's Gdansk, heralding a toppling of dominos of the kind that swept Eastern Europe in 1989.

Yet some wonder how long the region's unpopular rulers - from absolute monarchs to ageing revolutionaries clinging to power - can rely on the hard, old ways to stay in power.

The unprecedented riots that have shaken Tunisia have been closely followed on regional satellite television channels and the Internet across the Middle East where high unemployment, bulging young populations, sky-rocketing inflation and a widening gap between rich and poor are all grave concerns.

"This could happen anywhere," said Iman, a restaurant owner in Egypt who did not want to give her full name.

"The satellite and Internet images we can see nowadays mean people who would normally be subdued can now see others getting what they want."

"We are not used to something like this in this part of the world," said Kamal Mohsen, a 23-year-old Lebanese student. "It is bigger than a dream in a region where people keep saying 'what can we do'.

While in recent decades democracy has supplanted despotism in regions once plagued by dictators, but governments in the Arab world are almost uniformly autocratic and heavily policed.

Yet some think the concessions wrung from veteran Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, as well as efforts in Algeria to appease anger over price increases, have punctured the fear factor that has long kept discontent in check across the region.

"Perhaps all the Arab governments are monitoring with eyes wide open what is happening in Tunisia and Algeria," columnist Abdelrahman al-Rashed wrote in Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

"Much of what prevents protest and civil disobedience is simply the psychological barrier," he said. "Tunisia's president has promised all he can to stop the trouble and Algeria reversed price decisions, but the psychological barrier is broken."

Tunisia's decision to bring forward elections to quell growing street protests is a warning to Arab governments that still rely on tough policing, tight control of media and subsidising basic needs to quash dissent.

Satellite news and Internet social media can sidestep such autocratic tactics and can quickly fuse frustrations of young people in isolated, deprived regions into a broad movement. Rights groups in Tunisia say the government blocks access to much of the Internet, but that did not stop activists uploading videos of badly wounded demonstrators onto the Web, sparking more anger and giving the protests momentum.

At least 5,000 people gathered outside the interior ministry in central Tunis on Friday to demand Ben Ali quit immediately.

"The whole story would not have been the same without Facebook and Twitter and other new media," said Ahmed Mansoor, a UAE-based rights activist and blogger.

The stock response to street protests across the Middle East and North Africa, where between half and two thirds of the population is under the age of 25, is to offer concessions on jobs and cheap food.

Riots in several Algerian towns subsided last weekend after the government promised to do whatever was necessary to protect citizens from the rising cost of living.

Libya, Morocco and Jordan have also announced plans to ease prices of basic goods. But budgets are creaking under the cost of imported food and fuel, especially in those countries lacking big energy reserves, leaving less leeway to buy off popular discontent.

The International Monetary Fund said that with current unemployment rates already very high, the region needs to create close to 100 million new jobs by 2020.

Supporters of the region's governments have tended to blame rioting on a dearth of cheap food, not bad government. Rights activists said the Tunisia protests spread fast because freedom of expression and association has been so long suppressed.

"There is a danger in ... getting a bit too comfortable with the 'Arab state will muddle through' argument," said Stephen Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations in a blog this week. "It may not be the last days of Ben Ali or (Egypt's President Hosni) Mubarak or any other Middle Eastern strongman.”But there is clearly something going on in the region."

Qatar-based satellite channel Al Jazeera, launched in 1996, has been devoting airtime to the Tunisia unrest, showing on-air interviews with witnesses to clashes and opposition figures.

In an apparent recognition that the channel is influencing Tunisian opinion, government ministers have appeared on air to give their views on what is happening. The government blames the riots on a violent minority of extremists.

But opposition parties and civil society in the Arab world still seem too weak to capitalise on disaffection, as governments lose their grip over the flow of information.

"Whose fault is all of this? The opposition's, which has been focusing on defaming regimes and not organising properly," said Larbi Sadiki, Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at Exeter University in Britain.

Anyone expecting a region-wide revolution would do well to look at Egypt, which imports around half of the food eaten by its 79 million population and is struggling with inflation of more than 10 percent.

With a massive security apparatus quick to suppress large street protests and the main opposition Muslim Brotherhood excluded from formal politics, the state's biggest challenge comes from factory strikes in the Nile Delta industrial belt.

Egypt's Internet based campaign for political change, the country's most critical voice, has failed to filter down from the chattering middle classes to the poor on the street.

"There has been such a division between economic struggles and political struggles in Egypt," said Laleh Khalili, a Middle East Politics expert at the University of London. "Strikes have been going on, but not spilling into the public domain."

This could however change if rising discontent over food price inflation feeds into the wider malaise about political and economic stagnation and the lack of opportunities and freedom, especially for the armies of young graduates entering the workforce each year with little prospect of a meaningful job.

Other analysts say the Internet has the power to turn disparate local demands into a cohesive political campaign, and point to Web activism in non-Arab Iran that helped bring millions onto the street in 2009 to contest an election result.

"Young people across the Arab world should go to the streets and do the same." It is time that we claim our rights," said Mohsen, the Lebanese student. "Arab leaders should be very scared now because they do not have anything to offer their people but fear and when Tunisians win, the fear will be broken and what happens there will be contagious. It is only a matter of time," he added.

Reuters - Saturday, January 15, 2011 01:14:44 PM

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